CAPE COAST, GHANA // It is mid-morning in Cape Coast, a fishing town 120km from Ghana's capital, Accra. Battered wooden vessels' sails billow in the salty breeze. Rays of sunlight illuminate the whitewashed walls of a colonial-era castle and fishermen cast seaweed-green nets where slave ships once sailed. As the morning's meagre catch is brought to shore, women swarm around sun-beaten boats, scrambling for prized tuna, crab, squid and octopus. Most leave disappointed, carrying small tubs of skinny herring to sell at the local market. "The fishermen don't bring much good fish to land these days," said Angeline Dey, a fishmonger.
Worse things, however, are happening at sea. Cape Coast's slave-trading days may be long gone, but the historic town is no stranger to modern exploitation. Local fishermen say illegally operating foreign trawlers are raping the seas, stealing the area's biggest commodity - its fish. The country's fisheries department says stocks of some species have plummeted by 50 per cent in recent years, but documenting the decline of fish in an under-equipped nation is a difficult task.
"I don't know why the [foreign trawlers] come. Maybe they have eaten all the fish in their own countries. It is a real problem for us," said Kodjo Thomas, a veteran fisherman. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is one of the most serious threats to the world's fish stocks, jeopardising marine environments and crippling coastal communities in developing countries such as Ghana. The environmental watch group Greenpeace says technologies used by heavy-duty fishing vessels in Asia and Europe have severely depleted fish stocks, and some nations are now looking for new fisheries, targeting the more fertile waters of west and northern Africa to satisfy demand back home.
Dwarfed by industrial-sized foreign vessels, Ghana's decrepit fishing boats look like plankton in an ocean increasingly frequented by whale sharks. A couple of kilometres off Cape Coast's golden beaches, the delicate twine of floating nets glistens in the sun. As Kofi Mills, 31, steers the wooden boat towards last night's catch, the engine splutters. Tiny flares mark the boundaries of each net, allowing fishermen to locate the night's catch before the sun comes up. Reeling in a huge "set net", like those left out overnight off Cape Coast, takes the best part of the morning and requires serious stamina. As Mr Mills throws small fry into a plastic bucket, he attempts a laugh. "This is all that was waiting for us when we turned up this morning," he said, beads of sweat dripping down tired arms.
The entire operation, carried out in unpredictable waters, is gruelling and time-consuming. And with no guarantee of taking home a substantial catch, local fishermen are starting to cast their nets elsewhere. "Many fishermen are deciding to change their jobs. Crime is sometimes a last resort," said Nana Kwesi Baesl, chairman of the Fishing Association of Cape Coast. "And when we don't have enough fish to catch there is always trouble between wives and husbands."
Some locals have abandoned fishing altogether, instead using their rickety crafts to take oranges, pineapples and DVD movies to the foreign trawlers, exchanging the goods for fish that would otherwise be dumped in the ocean. "What's the point in working so hard for not much in return?" said Francis Doe, who now uses his fishing boat to trade goods with the crew of Chinese trawlers. "For me, life is much better since I've given up fishing. There is not much fish in the sea these days. I profit more by trading with the Chinese vessels."
Other fishermen, however, said they want to seek justice. "Foreign trawlers may make money here, but it's not very fair for them to destroy our way of eating. They fish for octopus in shallow waters, destroying the nets we set overnight. We really need to stop this problem before it gets worse and nobody has a job," said Mr Thomas, whose wife works as a fishmonger at Cape Coast market. Ghana's government permits foreign fishing vessels - most from China, Korea and Japan - to trawl the country's waters in return for paying taxes. Current law stipulates that they must operate at a depth of at least 30 metres, but local fishermen say they often work in far shallower waters, sometimes under the cover of darkness, depleting fish stocks and dumping waste into the sea.
This affects the delicate marine environment and the reproduction of threatened species. In heavily trawled areas, habitats have little chance to recover and in some cases are permanently damaged. In competition with one another as well as with local fishermen, foreign trawlers exploit government loopholes to increase their catches, sometimes resorting to illegal pair trawling - dragging one large net between two vessels and completely sweeping the seabed - or flying flags of convenience, where the nationality of the owner is different from the country of registration, to save on fees and taxes.
The practice - once described by Franz Fischler, former EU commissioner for fisheries as "the scourge of today's maritime world" - is one of the easiest ways for large trawlers to circumvent conservation measures and avoid questions as to their whereabouts. Trawlers registered under the flag of Liberia, which accounts for the second largest shipping fleet in the world after Panama, pay lower fees and fewer taxes. There is no requirement for such ships ever to dock in the flag-bearing country. Some flag-of-convenience states, such as Mongolia, do not even have a coastline.
Overfishing is not limited to West African waters. According to figures from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, at least three-quarters of the world's fisheries are threatened by overfishing. In Somalia, the spike in piracy has been linked to overfishing, with pirates blaming foreign trawlers for destroying their livelihoods, forcing them into hijacking ships and demanding ransoms. But the consequences are more worrying in poor communities such as those along the west African coastline, where fish is the main source of food and income.
"Poor communities in west Africa are experiencing devastating negative impacts from pirate fishing," said Steve Trent, the executive director of the Environmental Justice Foundation, a British conservation think tank. "These include loss of food and declining food security; loss of income and employment; loss of their fishing gears and in some cases loss of life as local artisanal fishers are run down by illegal trawlers. In the longer term the fish stocks on which these communities depend are being wiped out."
West African countries such as Senegal, Mauritania and Guinea are all too familiar with the great grey trawlers. A 2007 report by the Environmental Justice Foundation in conjunction with the British Department for International Development, branded the overfishing situation in Guinea "the worst in Africa", with 34,000 tons of fish lost every year to illegal trawlers. About 10,000 tons of dead and decaying fish are thrown into Guinea's waters every year, exacerbating damage to the delicate marine environment. Mauritania lost its lobster population decades ago and octopus has hit an all-time low in the region, with 80 per cent less stocks than 20 years ago. The European Commission estimates that more than 1.1 billion euros in illegal seafood enters Europe each year, with half of all fish sold coming from developing nations.
Guinea supports an estimated 70,000 fishermen and fishmongers while Ghana's fishing industry provides about 500,000 jobs, with one in 10 of the country's population employed in fishing and peripheral industries. If current trends continue, traditional fishing nations such as Ghana - which reaps about US$60 million (Dh220m) from fish exports every year - will be hit harder than anywhere else in the world.
"Here in Cape Coast, local jobs are collapsing," said Isiah Amoukouandoh, from Ghana's ministry of fisheries. "There's not much locals can do about the damage to their nets by foreign trawlers, other than filing a report and taking the case to court - few fishermen have the money to do that. In 2004, researchers at the University of California in Berkeley established a link between Ghana's declining fish stocks and a rise in illegal hunting and poaching. A study found that dwindling marine resources had led to the extinction of almost half the mammal species studied in some land nature reserves.
The news led Ghana's current president, John Atta Mills, who was not in power in 2004, to write an opinion piece in the local media expressing concern about the future of the country's fishing industry. "Unemployment for fishers has significant social and economic impacts since Ghanaian fishers are generally poorly educated and landless with few other options for income generation," he wrote at the time. "Many unemployed fishers have migrated to the cities looking for work that is simply unavailable and have been unable to improve their economic conditions."
Local fishermen say they hope Mr Atta Mills, who came to power in January, will take action. If the government continues to collect tax income from foreign trawlers, West African fishing industries such as Cape Coast's will be among the first casualties of the global overfishing crisis. "We hope President Atta Mills will change the situation now he's in power," Mr Amoukouandoh said. "But it's a difficult balance for the government because foreign trawlers contribute to government funds. If the trawlers stuck to regulations, there would be less of a problem. But they are fishing in the waters reserved for the local fishermen, stealing their fish."
According to information released by Ghana's ministry of foreign affairs, it is likely that the US president, Barack Obama, will visit Cape Coast castle when he lands in Ghana this summer on his first state visit to Africa. Mr Obama will be passing over Kenya, his ancestral homeland, in favour of Ghana, where White House aides say he will be "highlighting the critical role that sound governance and civil society play in promoting lasting development". Though Ghana is often hailed as a beacon of stability in Africa, its cracks - such as the overfishing situation - sometimes run deep. Mr Obama may not have time to notice the meagre catches on Cape Coast's shoreline and how they threaten the lasting development of a nation like Ghana.
"West Africa is one of the most heavily impacted regions," Mr Trent of the Environmental Justice Foundation said. "If illegal fishing regulations are not tightened and, crucially, if enforcement is not massively improved, many poor coastal communities will lose their means of survival and their whole way of life. "Countries in west Africa can strike an effective balance between earning income from foreign trawlers and not destroying their own fishing industries in the process, but they need locally appropriate assistance. It is clear that unless this balance is reached the longer-term prognosis will be far worse, damning many people to even greater poverty."